Earlier this week, I posted my favorite singles from 2012. And now, it’s time for the albums.
Unlike last year, 2012 was not a very strong year for mainstream pop acts–at all. Most of the releases from pop’s biggest players, including P!nk, Nicki Minaj, One Direction, Christina Aguilera, Ke$ha and Adam Lambert–were largely ‘okay’ at best, playing like rehashes of previous successes and hopping on radio trends du jour. The result was a yearlong onslaught of dubstep breakdowns and guitar-led YOLO dance-pop (“Live While We’re Young,” “Die Young,” “Starships,” et al.) Even the Queen of Reinvention herself–as much as I wouldn’t normally dare to admit this–bowed to some occasionally cringeworthy youth pandering on her 12th studio album, MDNA. (And could she ever really recover from Cher‘s merciless shade?)
But whereas conventional pop faltered, dozens of up-and-coming players from around the world shined bright (like a diamond), resulting in music that actually was–and still is–largely ahead of the curve: A Swedish trance-pop songstress, a Canadian R&B crooner, a British neo-soul darling and of course, a certain American-born throwback chanteuse that set the nation on fire in a red, white and blue blaze of glory.
Here are my Top 20 albums of 2012. As with the singles, there’s a Spotify link at the very end to hear all Top 20 albums in a row. Enjoy, and I’ll see you in 2013!
19.) Morgan Page, In The Air
18.) Bruno Mars, Unorthodox Jukebox
17.) Gossip, A Joyful Noise
16.) Saint Etienne, Words and Music
15.) Garbage, Not Your Kind of People
14.) Agnes, Veritas
13.) Madonna, MDNA
12.) Frank Ocean, Channel Orange
11.) Niki & The Dove, Instinct
10.) Carly Rae Jepsen, Kiss
One hit wonder? Hardly. Canadian singer-songstress Carly Rae Jepsen may have catapulted into superstardom this year with her infuriatingly catchy (and impossibly unavoidable) mega-pop anthem “Call Me Maybe,” but her polished American debut, Kiss, proved that she offered much more: Full of bouncy, ’80’s infused bubblegum synth-pop cuts like “This Kiss” and “Curiosity,” along with pulverizing dance anthems like the Max Martin-produced “Tonight I’m Getting Over You,” Kiss provided plenty of unpretentious pop bliss, recalling the days of Tiffany and Stacey Q. Though the album ended up performing more poorly than anticipated, Carly’s set of swoony pop ditties remains on constant replay.
9.) Pet Shop Boys, Elysium
After 2009’s largely uptempo, storming Xenomania-produced Yes, the prolific British synthpop duo returned in 2012 with Elysium, their dreamiest, most downtempo set since 1990’s Behavior. Filled with lush, gentle soundscapes crafted in Los Angeles (their first album recorded in America!) alongside Andrew Dawson, the set shimmers gorgeously with laidback, twinkling gems like “Leaving” and “Requiem in Denim and Leopardskin.” Make no mistake, though–there’s still a healthy, hilarious dose of their signature brand of sarcasm. See: “Ego Music.”
8.) Grimes, Visions
In an increasingly homogenous pop world, Canadian experimental electronica darling Claire Boucher’s 2012 record, Visions, is defiantly weird: Dreamy ambient textures, ghostly warped vocals, lo-fi 8-bit synthesized beats–each listen offers up a new experience, conjuring all sorts of influences–everything from the Cocteau Twins to Ladytron to Stacey Q, but never really settling into any one genre. With Visions, the honey-voiced songstress has woven together the year’s most thrilling, genre-blurring release. For “Genesis” alone (and it’s wildly trippy video), Visions is easily one of 2012’s most unique and dreamy offerings.
7.) Rihanna, Unapologetic
Despite the fact that Illuminati Navy Commander Rihanna racked up her first #1 record with Unapologetic, the album may live on as one of Ri’s more under-appreciated releases: Unlike Loud or even Talk That Talk, there are no obvious singles here. Whether rolling with Eminem on “Numb” or flying high in the sky on “Get It Over With,” the drug-addled Instagram princess took a risk on this record: It’s a dark, less accessible album a la Rated R, full of blazed balladry, ratchet trap anthems (“Phresh Out The Runway”) and thirsty come-ons (“Jump”). There’s depth too, as with the stunning “Stay” and “Love Without Tragedy,” a rather explicit retelling of the night of the Grammys with Chris Brown in 2009. That being said, she’s certainly not looking for healthy relationship advice, professing to be Brown’s only baby on their Michael Jackson-esque duet, “Nobody’s Business.” Role model? Perhaps not, but there’s something noteworthy–or at the very least, intriguing–about the boldness of it all. #PhuckYoCriticism
6.) The Weeknd, Trilogy
True, Trilogy is hardly ‘new’: The Weeknd‘s debut major label release in November is actually a remastered compilation of his free mixtapes from 2011–House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence–along with 3 new songs, but that doesn’t make it any less laudable. The Canadian crooner’s sparse, ambient brand of spook-hop, largely co-crafted alongside fellow Canadian producers Doc McKinney and Illangelo, remains just as staunchly forward-thinking a year later, providing the essential soundtrack to a late night comedown. Cuts like soulful lead single “Wicked Games” and “D.D.”, his utterly genius cover of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” quickly prove why The Weeknd is one of the industry’s most promising new acts.
5.) Bright Light Bright Light, Make Me Believe In Hope
It’s hard out there for a male pop star, but Bright Light Bright Light (Rod Thomas) is doing it, and doing it well: The supremely talented UK indie-pop prince crafted one of the year’s best releases in Make Me Believe In Hope this summer, balancing clever, earnest lyricism a la the Pet Shop Boys with undeniably catchy melodies and buoyant, danceable ’80’s synth-pop beats and early ’90’s piano-led House pulsations. The result is an exercise in supremely smart dance-pop, with sparkling cuts like “Moves,” “Disco Moment” and “Cry At Films” (featuring Del Marquis) packing enough of an emotional punch to have those tears dropping at the discotheque.
4.) Loreen, Heal
What would a proper year in pop be without a Scandinavian sensation? After easily snagging the win at Eurovision 2012 with one of the greatest singles of the year–the almighty “Euphoria”–Swedish singer-songstress Loreen unveiled her unbelievable debut record back in October: Heal, a stone-cold solid set of stupid good trance-infused anthems: From “My Heart is Refusing Me” to “Crying Out Your Name” to “Sober,” each song is a gasp-worthy blend of moody, echoing electronic production, chill-inducing diva-sized vocals and unexpectedly emotional lyricism. It’s sad disco in its most purest form, from the very source of all things pop perfection.
3.) Marina And The Diamonds, Electra Heart (Original Review)
Take Willa Wonka & The Chocolate Factory‘s Veruca Salt and give her a synth machine and a gray wig or two, and you’d have Electra Heart, the fame and fortune-hungry antihero of Marina and The Diamonds’ ambitious sophomore record. Merging pop’s most powerful hitmakers, including Dr. Luke, Rick Nowels and Greg Kurstin with her ultra cheeky brand of songwriting, the Welsh songstress crafted some of pop’s strongest productions this year–from searing lead single “Primadonna,” to the utterly crushing “Lies,” to the blood, guts and chocolate cake of all-too-real confessional, “Teen Idle.” The result is a masterfully crafted concept record that challenges the boundaries of conventional popstardom…and still manages to poke fun at itself.
2.) Jessie Ware, Devotion (Original Review)
While acts like Amy Winehouse, Adele and Duffy helped pave the way for the revival of swinging ’60’s soul and Motown sound in recent years, Jessie Ware may well be credited as the savior of quiet storm. Conjuring shades of Sade and Marvin Gaye, the UK songstress’ supremely crafted debut record offers a smooth, soulful array of feel-good throwback R&B grooves, aided by early ’80s synth pulsations and powerful pipes with a healing touch. From the nu-soul sheen of “Sweet Talk,” to the gently skittish UK garage beats of “110%,” to the lump-in-throat-inducing gorgeousness of “Taking in Water,” Devotion isn’t just an obvious standout of the year, but the debut of one the most exciting new artists to arrive on the scene since Adele.
1.) Lana Del Rey, Born To Die (Original Review)
It’s you, it’s you, it was always you, Lana: From the second after I played Born To Die the whole way through for the first time in January, I already knew where the album wound wind up on this list at the end of December.
Lana Del Rey herself arguably did more to impact pop culture this year than any other artist, whether it be her hugely divisive persona (“authentic” or not?), constant quotables (“My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola”), controversial mini-epic music videos (Lana and A$AP Rocky as Jackie and JFK), or meme-friendly, twirl-heavy stage presence that spawned a deluge of e-hatred and fandom alike (and so, so many GIFs.) But below all the bickering, the album she crafted stands strong as the year’s greatest triumph.
With the help of a suite of producers including Emile Haynie, Jeff Bhasker and Rick Nowels, Lana cultivated not only an aesthetic, but a signature sound–if not her very own genre–blending retro vocal styling, cinematic strings and warbling surf guitar twangs with distinctly modern, tripping drum loops, resulting in an all-too-overused nickname early on: “The gangster Nancy Sinatra.”
At times devastating, at others just some good ol’ playful fun, Born To Die remains brilliantly cohesive throughout: From the coquettish giggles and hiccuping glee of “Off To The Races” and “Lolita,” to the youthful rebellion of “This Is What Makes Us Girls” and “Diet Mountain Dew,” to the Bonnie & Clyde-esque all-or-nothing lovesick devotionals like “Born To Die,” “National Anthem” and “Summertime Sadness,” to the quivering tragedy of “Dark Paradise” and “Without You.”
In a world increasingly filled with meaningless, bottle poppin’ club cuts, Lana’s unique flair for poetic storytelling is the lyrical equivalent of a faded Polaroid, colored by nostalgic references to opulent American dreams; of diamond-filled days spent lounging lazily in the Hamptons and late night cruises whipping ’round Mullholland with her bad baby by her heavenly side.
She topped off her debut with a Pepsi Cola-flavored cherry on top in November–the Paradise Edition–which, as she so perfectly described in an interview, “put a period on the statement I was making.” The re-release brought us 8 new tracks, including the brilliantly numb “Gods & Monsters,” a suitably brooding cover of the classic standard “Blue Velvet,” and one of the year’s greatest songs (and videos) of 2012, “Ride.”
In February, early after the release of her record, Lana shocked fans and critics by suggesting to Vogue UK that she may never release a follow-up. It was hugely disappointing in some way–but then, what’s interesting about an artist with nothing left to say? Even if Lana Del Rey never makes another record again, it wouldn’t really matter: Born To Die will live on forever as Lana’s beautiful masterpiece.